The Future Of The Professions

Have you taken a look around lately? The world is changing—and it’s changing quickly. It’s hard to ignore the incredible technological advancements occurring around us, whether it’s rapid leaps forward in artificial intelligence, 3D printing being used to create artificial limbs, or cutting edge wearable technologies that are changing the manufacturing process.

In other words, technology is undeniably affecting many different disciplines and job functions. But what about lawyers? Are their jobs going to affected—or even replaced—by technology? Will robot lawyers soon prevail, as many have been predicting as of late?

That’s a topic addressed head on by Richard and Daniel Susskind in their recently published book, The Future Of The Professions, a complimentary copy of which I received for review purposes. In it, they examine the incredible rate of technological change in the 21st century and suggest that, in due time, many professions—including the legal profession—will soon be replaced by new, less trained people and increasingly capable systems.

They make a strong case for their predictions and the examples listed in the introduction regarding the current effects of change on a range of different professions are quite convincing:

“More people have signed up for Harvard’s online courses in a single year, for example, than have attended the actual university in its 377 years of existence…(T)here are a greater number of unique visits each month to the WebMD network…than to all the doctors working in the United States. In the legal world, three times as many disagreements each year amongst eBay traders are resolved using ‘online disagreement resolution’ than there are lawsuits filed in the entire US court system. On its sixth birthday, the Huffington Post had more unique monthly visitors than the website of the New York Times, which is almost 164 years of age…In 2014 the US tax authorities received electronic tax returns from almost 48 million people who had used online tax preparation software rather than a tax professional to help them.”

After setting the stage via impressive statistics, they moved on and examined the idea of what it means to be part of a “profession.” They turned their attention to the effects of technology on each of the fields they’d classified as a “profession”: health, education, divinity, law, journalism, management consulting, tax and audit, and architecture.

As I read the book, I found myself nodding in agreement as I read their assessment of how technology will replace and greatly transform many aspects of other professions. But whenever they focused on the legal field, my agreement turned to skepticism. While I consider myself to be very forward-thinking when it comes to technology, the idea that technology will soon replace many functions of lawyers or otherwise reduce the number of lawyers by a substantial amount is difficult for me to accept.

This is no doubt partially attributable to my background in litigation. Because of my unique experiences as a trial attorney, I have a hard time envisioning the successful replacement of many of the functions of litigators by technology. Granted litigators do not make up the majority of the profession, but they certainly represent a good segment of lawyers. And those who are not litigators nevertheless often provide very specialized services that require analytical and creative thought processes. How is it possible that these processes and analytical skills could be replaced by computers?

I’m in full agreement with the idea that software can and does streamline many aspects of the practice of law. And technology can undoubtedly increase efficiencies. But I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the assertion that computers will one day be able to effectively “practice law” as I understand that concept.

Of course, my difficulty with their claims as they relate to the legal profession can arguably be explained by another concept discussed in the book: the jealous guard. In other words, most professionals are able to take a perfectly reasonable stance when it comes to discussing the inevitable effects of technology on professions other than their own, but when it comes to their sacred profession, they are incapable of admitting that proposition:

“(‘Status quo bias’) manifests itself in various ways. One is the special pleading in which many professionals engage. They accept that professionals in general are in need of change, but they maintain that their own particular fields are immune…A professional will claim that a new system or method cannot solve x or y, where X or y are the most difficult of problems in their fields.  Rather than conceding that many everyday challenges can indeed be met in many new ways, the argument concentrated on the atypical. It disconcerts by focusing on extreme examples rather than everyday challenges.”

Perhaps my unique biases are blinding me from seeing the truth as it relates to my chosen profession. After all, how is it possible that the only profession that won’t be dramatically transformed by technology is my own? It’s an intriguing question and it’s one for which I don’t have a satisfactory answer. But it’s certainly one worth thinking about.

There’s a lot to be learned from this book and there are great discussions to be had about the concepts and assertions made therein. So I implore you to buy a copy today, read it, and then join in. Let me know if you think technology will drastically alter our profession. For now, the answer remains to be seen, so tune in tomorrow and see.

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